Olaudah Equiano Research Paper

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Published in 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano . . . Written by Himself tells the story of an African man enslaved by the British during the mid-eighteenth century. Whether it is based strictly on Equiano’s life or on others, the book spares no sense of the horror and inhumane treatment slaves suffered. Equiano fought for the abolitionist cause from 1789 until his death in 1797.

Olaudah Equiano was one of the most prominent persons of African descent involved in the late-eighteenth- century effort to abolish the British slave trade. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, Written by Himself (1789) brought to the British public a powerfully expressed African perspective on the horrors of the Atlantic crossing and the brutality of plantation life.

Equiano described his childhood in an Igbo-speaking community (in today’s eastern Nigeria) and his kidnapping and transport to the west African coast, followed by a harrowing account of the Middle Passage, the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas. The use of these early passages from the Interesting Narrative as an historical source lately has been discounted by evidence that he may have been born in South Carolina. Whether Equiano wrote the first chapters of the book from memory, or from tales heard from other Africans, or through a combination of both, the controversy should not deflect attention from the value of the narrative as a whole.

In 1754 Equiano was purchased by a British naval officer and spent most of the next eight years on royal naval vessels; his ship participated in the Seven Years War (1756–1763) and he gives an account of the Siege of Louisbourg, a six-week-long battle in which the British captured the fortress on Cape Breton Island from the French. He learned to speak and read English and began to acquire the skills necessary to be promoted to the rank of “able seaman” in 1762. The status of “slave” and “free” had little meaning on a ship at war; he was therefore bitterly disappointed at war’s end when his master pocketed his pay and sold him to Robert King, a West Indian merchant. King valued Equiano’s literacy, numeracy, and seamanship, but as a Quaker he was open to appeals of conscience. He agreed that Equiano might be allowed some day to purchase his own freedom, but was shocked when in 1766 the young man produced the agreed-upon sum. Equiano had saved the money through shrewd trading on his own account while tending to his master’s business.

Because his personal safety and property were still vulnerable in the Americas, Equiano settled in London. He returned often to the West Indies and the American colonies, and his years as a free sailor included voyages to the Mediterranean and to the Arctic. At one point he signed on with an enterprise to establish a plantation on the Central American coast, even supervising slave laborers as part of his duties. As late as the 1770s he was still an “ameliorationist,” believing that both moral and economic factors argued for better treatment of slaves. He expressed pride at the productivity of the slaves under his command, and the affection he asserted they felt for him.

By the next decade abolitionism was gathering force, and Equiano, now a fervent Methodist, increasingly identified with it. He hoped to journey to Africa as part of that cause, but failed in his effort to gain an appointment with either the London Missionary Society or the African Association. His best prospect was with the Sierra Leone resettlement project, but in 1787 he was dismissed from his post after his persistent complaints about cruelty and corruption in the enterprise. Despite his African sympathies, Equiano had by then developed a strong British identity. In 1792 he married an English woman, a marriage that brought him some property and two children.

The publication of the Interesting Narrative provided a major stimulus to the abolitionist movement; his subscriber list included such prominent leaders as Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. From the book’s publication in 1789 until his untimely death in 1797 Equiano toured Britain and Ireland promoting his book and the abolitionist cause. Though he did not live to see his dream realized, the importance of his book to the British and global abolitionist causes was well established: nine English editions appeared during his lifetime, as well as translations into Russian, German, French, and Dutch. The Interesting Narrative is now firmly established in the canons of both African American and Afro-British literature.


  1. Carretta, V. (2005). Equiano the African: Biography of a self-made man. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  2. Equiano, O. (2004[1789]). The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, written by himself. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.
  3. Sweet, J. H. (2009, April). Mistaken identities? Olaudah Equiano, Domingos Alvares, and the methodological challenges of studying the African diaspora. American Historical Review, 279–306.
  4. Walvin, J. (1998). An African’s life: The life and times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745–1797. London: Cassell.

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